PESHAWAR, Jan 14: Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, was invited to a village in the Bajaur area but was not present there when aeroplanes, in a CIA-supported operation, hit three houses on Friday and killed 18 civilians, official sources said.

“There is no indication that he (Zawahiri) was there,” a senior official said. “Probably there was an intelligence botch- up.”

Most of the victims of the air strike on the houses at the foothills of Damadola village, about 25km to the northeast of Bajaur regional headquarters, Khaar, were women and children.

A source said the operation was launched on the basis of an intelligence report that Al-Qaeda No-2 was amongst the few invited to a dinner in one of the three houses at the night of the attack.

Besides Zawahiri, the source said, two local clerics, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad and Maulvi Liaqat, both wanted for harbouring foreign militants, had also been invited to the feast.

Incidentally, it was Faqir Mohammad who delivered a fiery anti-Pakistan and anti-US speech at the collective funeral of the civilians killed in the Friday action.

The clerics left the village at around 12.30am and the air strike came at around 3.15am.

The source said the intelligence reports indicated that the Egyptian surgeon (Zawahiri) had been visiting Bajaur for about a year and security agencies had been trying to keep an eye on his movement over the past few months.

Another reason for Zawahiri’s visit to the Bajaur village was to meet his family, the source said.

“Bin Laden’s deputy is married to a woman from Mohmand tribe who, with her children, lives with her father in the border area between Bajaur and Mohmand tribal regions,” the source said.

But it had been quite sometime since Zawahiri visited his family or met his in-laws, the source added. Zawahiri carries a $ 25 million bounty on his head and has eluded capture.

While intelligence officials desperately searched for clues and indications of Zawahiri’s presence during or before the strike, confusion was further compounded by reports that some bodies, apparently those of foreigners, might have been removed by elements close to them soon after the attack.

A senior security official said foreign militants had frequently been visiting Bajaur and even Abu Faraj al-Libbi, said to have been No. 3 in Al-Qaeda hierarchy, had told interrogators that he had lived in Bajaur.

He recalled that an Uzbek militant had been arrested from Faqir Mohammad’s house in last April with laptop computer and improvised explosive devices.

The source said Maulvi Liaqat, soon after the attack, removed seven bodies, said to be of foreign nationals.

Investigators are trying to ascertain the veracity of this report and establish the identity of the foreign ‘guests’ killed in the attack. There is another report that another cleric, Maulvi Atta Mohammad, removed four bodies, said to be of people from Punjab, and buried them at an undisclosed location.

If true, it would put the death toll in Friday attack at 29, including the 18 civilians.

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